By Lisa Cramer

We all know marketing departments aren't increasing resources, the current economy notwithstanding. In fact, marketers must not only do more with less, but also take on additional responsibilities to help facilitate getting more quality leads to sales.

With regard to lead quality, sales and marketing goals have been unaligned for some time now, since marketing has typically been focused on lead quantity. But with the limited ability of most companies now to throw money into lead generation without financial return, the cost of this misalignment is steeper than ever before.

It's therefore time for marketing's role to evolve beyond just outbound lead generation — it must now include the entire lead life cycle. Consider this: A lead's life cycle starts at the stage of inquiry, which is some kind of interaction with the company (a Web visit, a download, a trade show visit, etc.). Traditionally, this is the point where marketing sends over the "leads" to sales without further qualification or handling. And it is exactly this area where marketing must evolve.

How? By taking more responsibility for providing better-qualified and intrinsically higher-value (read: sales-ready) leads. In a nutshell, companies can no longer have this type of unqualified "hand-off" from marketing to the sales team.

Marketing's Revised Role

In actuality, lead generation should not be just the initial creation of interest, but the full slate of nurturing activities growing the lead into a genuine prospect. Marketing's role must include taking responsibility for moving sales-ready leads to sales, instead of simply handing over cold inquiries and then attempting to match back the revenue won from the leads initially generated to evaluate the success of marketing programs.

Of course, a key requirement for this is that sales and marketing must first work together to determine the company's definition of a sales-ready lead. Once that definition is agreed upon, it then becomes marketing's job to work toward filling the top of the sales funnel with leads meeting that definition, as opposed to simply clogging it with inquiries who in all likelihood are not yet ready or able to buy.

How can marketing evolve into this new mindset, and what processes and metrics must be implemented? In order for marketers to track and drive leads through the life cycle, they must be equipped with the tools and visibility to allow them to meet their objectives. They must also be assured that both sales and company management understand their new role, since it is likely marketing will be delivering fewer leads (as far as actual quantity goes, though the quality will be significantly better).

Another key element to consider is what the lead life cycle or lead management process should now be at the company — not what it has been, mind you, but what it should be. Many companies have fallen into a process that simply just evolved. No one sat down and mapped out the lead life cycle or lead management process based on best practice knowledge, or with a practical eye toward efficiency and effectiveness.

Remember, the lead management process is always the precursor to the sales process. Companies are very sophisticated about the sales process and the stages within those processes. Similarly, marketers should not look at what currently exists but at what is the optimum lead management process for their specific company. For example, what fits their specific product and services buy cycle? What fits their prospects best? What fits their organization best?

Once marketers have determined what the lead management process should be and how a lead will move through the lifecycle, they need to implement the tools and metrics to meet that need. They must also map out their needs at a campaign level, whether online or offline, and determine what they need to understand about the lead itself.

Do you want to track and understand the lead's demographic information? Their behavior as they interact with your company and materials? Their answers to questions? How much information is reasonable to track for your target audience? How is it best to obtain that information? All of these items must be thought through and decided upon.

Furthermore, from a nurturing perspective, how will you grow a lead into a sales-ready lead? What works for your specific audience? At the beginning much of this will be trial and error. But marketers will quickly see the emergence of patterns and trends.

Initial Steps for Lead Management

First, decide what is to be tracked within a marketing campaign and how to track it. Second, decide how you will move a lead through its life cycle to get it to a sales-ready state. Next, determine how to gain quick visibility to all leads and their progress until they are ready to be passed to sales. Lastly, determine the metrics to track throughout the process.

While all this may sound like a lot, it can be done in bite-sized pieces so that it's manageable for marketing teams. Don't complicate the process, and don't try to apply this against all leads and all campaigns at the same time. Start with a single campaign and implement your chosen concepts, technology, processes, and metrics. Then go back, tweak, and continue to expand.

These days, everyone is struggling to grow sales revenue with fewer resources. This means the processes we have fallen into must be refined. And although sales has refined the sales process and much attention has been drawn there, marketing must also take similar responsibility and evolve its role in order to refine the lead management process.

Once this process is reviewed and adjusted, with a goal of producing more sales-ready leads, marketing will be better in-line with company objectives, more instrumental in meeting sales goals, and more closely aligned with the sales team.

Lisa Cramer is president and co-founder of LeadLife Solutions, a provider of on-demand lead management software that generates, scores, and nurtures leads for B2B marketers.